Sidharth Vardhan


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Alternative Hindu history cover(Review of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Donigner, Rating 4*/5*)


In his book, the ‘The God Delusion, Richard Hawkins debated about the undeserved respect given to religious issues. This, very same undeserved respect is responsible for the genuine resistance, this book has met. It is undeserved because no religion or belief can be shielded from criticism.

Much of the fuss is however made by Hindutava whose political agendas will be badly affected if Doniger’s version of history gains popularity – specially the parts relating to Ram-setu and Ayodhya Ram Mandir. The so called danger this book is supposed to have brought on Hindu religion is only a red hearing to mask their own little interests.

To stop any book from being read is wrong but even if these fundamentalists feel so protective of their little gods then why don’t they fight against such books like Ajaya, Asura or Shiva trilogy (or – well Chota Bheem)?

That Penguin group should remove it,is something which is scary for all of us. Arundhati Rai’s letter to Penguin group is something I will never forget:
“Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are?”

Who should read this book?

As it should be, anyone can. I think it is not perfect book to start with, for a person not already somewhat sufficiently acquainted with the Hindu religion – that is just because it is not intended as an introduction to Hinduism, it is a history and you might end up judging the present in terms of forgotten past. The gods in Hindu mind are created and developed over centuries and it would be wrong to judge them (the images in Hindu mind) purely on basis of past. if you don’t know about Hinduism much, then you should make it a second read, the first read being some other book (even if it is by same author).
A second requirement if you want to read it would be an open mind, please.

Why should I read this book?

There is this whole market of readers interested in mythology, however they would rather go for badly researched retellings instead of a serious book like this. If you are really interested in mythology, have guts to be serious with your reading.

Now about the content of the book:

The author starts by answering questions raised on very validity of book like – should a foreigner write on Hinduism, please do read them again before reviewing the book.

The author then goes onto define her objectives and also explains to you a few rules of logic – that she will be using. She also question the assumption of ‘old is gold’. The book is full of footnotes, references and so on – the way well researched works are. You could see the transformations that took place in Hinduism through the history.

The tone she uses is chatty and frequently humorous giving it a light touch which is always good. Anyone who thinks that religion should always be discussed with hanging faces may simply avoid it. In India, it is very common for people to discuss their gods in this fashion.

Then there are those extracts and short stories, which the author translates, which I loved the most.

The author condemns the oriental-ism prevalent in west, clarifying the traditions wrongly interpreted. She also provides a fairly critical review of Hinduism of present day India.

and now, the but:

There is not much of a ‘but’. The author seems to be genuinely trying and mostly successfully to avoid speculation but at time she seemed to be just carried away. She tells us how Kalidas tries to shield Dushyant by creating an alternative history for him in Shankuntala – something she herself tries best to avoid but yet, very rarely …

She also seems a bit obsessed with Hinduism’s interest in animals – something exploited to excess (for example I can’t see why Yudhistra’s dog had to be anything other than Dharamraj or a dog).

and so, to conclude

I don’t think, on a question that looks so open ended and vast, two sufficiently knowledgeable persons can agree completely but Doniger is greatly agreeable.

This is a very good and serious book that unfortunately, for all of us fell prey to narrow mindedness of a few fundamentalists and cowardice of its publishers – showing what joke our country has as freedom of speech.




Additional Edit:

This is just to add a remark about one of the biggest criticisms of this book – that it was written by an outsider and who (as critics seem to think ‘it follows’) didn’t know anything about Hinduism. Doniger herself answers the criticism well. And anyway, I don’t think most Hindus ever opened any of their bigger scriptures.

Still…. MM Kalburgi, a rationalist with strong views against idol-worship and winner of Kendrya Sahitya Akademi Award was murdered on August 30 this year. MM Kalburgi doesn’t even have his works listed on goodreads perhaps because he wrote in local languages.

Earlier Govind Pansare was murdereed on February 20. His best selling book ‘Shivaji Kaun Hota’ showed Shiva ji as a ‘secular’ leader.

Although nobody knows who killed them; the investigation is still going …. and it can be a pure coincidence that both of them (like Donigner) had real differences with Hindutava ideologies.

So there you have it friends, this is what happens when insiders write about Hinudism. And journalists in the country seem to be pretty easy with it. Wendy Doniger was lucky to escape mrely with her book taken out of publication.

Want more? Narendar Dabolkar, a social activist who demanded an anti-superstition bill was killed in 2013.

Not that our popular great pseudo-writers have much to say about this. The only place where I have seen those killings mentioned on goodreads is link to the blog by Taslima Nasrin.

Journalists seemed to have shown greater support for Charlie Hebdo, who were distant and where their support was risk-free . Also meaningless.

I don’t think most people ever got the real threat contained in Penguin’s taking this book out of publication. It wasn’t that particular book was challenged but that it showed that publishers seems to be scared or what wrong they might have suddenly seen in a book they had previously published willingly. What bigger proof of self-censorship could be there? And even if someone mustered courage to write his heart even with all these risks, what is the chance that he/she will ever be published in a country where whatever few real publishers there are, are so scared?

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